Working Women of the Old Port

Filling fish cans at Burnham & Morrill, Portland, 1934
Filling fish cans at Burnham & Morrill, Portland, 1934

Women’s History Month offers us the opportunity to reflect on how gender roles have changed over time, but it also invites us to examine our assumptions more closely. Despite the perception many have of women in the past staying close to home, in 1900, about twenty percent of all women and girls who lived in Portland–more than 5,500–worked for wages.

The exhibit Working Women of the Old Port highlights the variety of jobs–ranging from dirty, hot, and dangerous work in factories to teaching school or owning one’s own business–that women held in and around Portland in the early part of the 20th century.

And this being International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember that a number of these women were probably immigrants to the United States.


The Heart of Portland on Foot

Portland’s “Old Port” is perhaps one of the most popular destinations in southern Maine. Known for its exceptional restaurants, shops, lodging, waterfront, and general aesthetics, the area draws tourists and natives alike to sample its wares. But those who drive downtown to pop into a storefront or dining establishment and then drive back out may miss the rich and diverse history and architecture that has evolved over the past 300 years. The best way to appreciate that is by hoofing it, with a guide.

Docent John Serrage (seated) shows tour-goers a granite disk that features the names, dates, and descriptions of important city residents of the past.

Greater Portland Landmarks has long known that, which is why they’ve offered tours of the area in years past. This summer, however, they’ve passed the baton to Maine Historical Society. Beginning next week, MHS offers Old Port Walking Tours Thursday through Saturday throughout the summer. The 90-minute tours leave MHS headquarters on Congress Street at 10:30 AM and 1:00 PM and cost $10 per person. They are recommended for children age 12 and up. (Longfellow Walking Tours, a staple for some time now, are also available–on Mondays and Wednesdays at 11AM.)

An example of three architectural styles on Fore Street: Colonial Revival, Colonial, and Greek Revival (l to r).

The tours are led by experienced and knowledgeable docents–most of whom led them previously for Greater Portland Landmarks–and highlight the city’s colonial maritime heritage and wide varieties of architecture including Victorian, Greek Revival, Colonial, Colonial Revival, Second French Empire, and Bauhaus, among others.

A number of other topics make their way into the tour depending upon the specific interests and research of the docents. Some of these include:

Outside Brian Boru

Immigrant history. Did you know, for example, that the large parking lot just south of the Brian Boru pub used to be the heart of a significant Irish neighborhood?

Industries. Cod, wood, and ice were all shipped out of Portland beginning long before the American Revolution.

The Hub Furniture Co. building was built after the 1866 fire and has only had two tenants; the original tenant was the Curtis Chewing Gum Co.

The great fire of 1866. Given that two-thirds of the city was burned to the ground, the fire had a monumental impact on development in the latter half of the 19th century.

The area’s revitalization that began in the 1970s. Can you name the three landmark restaurants that helped turn the area around during this decade? (The Old Port Tavern on Moulton Street, and the Gaslight and F. Parker Reidy’s on Exchange Street.)

Famous city residents. In addition to Longfellow, one of Portland’s most beloved sons was film director John Ford (born John Martin Feeney). He won four Oscars for directing, a record that stands today. (Be sure to check out our Ford film series this summer!)

The group stops at the John Ford statue.
The iconic Bull Feeney’s

Social history. Fore Street once housed a Seamen’s Chapel, the Seamen’s Club (now Bull Feeney’s, named for Ford, who was known as “Bull” in high school), and–legend has it–a house of ill repute, all within a few steps of one another. Vice and repentance, conveniently aligned.

These tidbits barely scratch the surface of what you’ll learn on an Old Port Walking Tour. So grab your sunscreen, don a hat, and join us sometime this summer to discover the history behind one of Maine’s most historic downtowns.

The Fifth Season (And We Don’t Mean “Mud”)

This month’s e-Connection opens with a dramatic image representative of the season–hunting season, that is.

Loading deer on the train at Strong station, ca. 1915

Contributed by Strong Historical Society as part of its Maine Community Heritage Project, the photo at the Strong railroad station exemplifies Maine’s long history as a location for hunting enthusiasts. Thanks to the presence of the Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad, Franklin County in particular became a hunting destinations for out of state “sports” (i.e. hunters) in the early 1900s.

Four gentlemen from Houlton, ca. 1890

Whether for true sport or to feed one’s family, hunting has a long tradition in the state. Despite the safety risks inherent in the activity–just in the past week, two accidents and one fatality occurred–hunting remains an important ritual for many Maine residents and visitors.

To see nearly 100 more Maine hunting-related images, as well as an exhibit about a 19th century sportsman from Pennsylvania who came to the Maine woods to hunt and fish, visit this page on Maine Memory.